Chopin Theatre turns 100!

100th Anniversary Press

Chicago Tribune
WGN AM (1:02:00)
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Celebrate 100 years with us Monday October 29th.  The 7 hour birthday bash  includes art talk with fictious installation    Golf Courses in East Berlin Public Housing by artist Daniel Theiler;  Made in Wicker Park panel discussion with former/current leaders of Wicker Park art institutions; food from 7 restaurants, sneak peek at upcoming photo album Around Chopin Theatre: A Century in Pictures & Stories; and dance party Environmental Encroachment 16 piece Orchestra, Rio Bamba Brazilian Band, pianists W. Zuterek, S. Feher. DJ Jacques van der Line.

Free Artists/Crews performed @Chopin.  $30 General Public

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10/29/18 - 10/29/18


Online Article

Chopin turns 100: Historic theater has ushered in hipsters but kept its Polish roots - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 10-26/18 - "Now a hipster highway, Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago was known in the first decades of the 20th century as Dinner Pail Avenue - it was so named for the legions of workers carrying their food as they trekked downtown along its thriving diagonal, filled with theaters of all sizes and types.

And in 1918, an upmarket, 548-seat theater named the Chopin Theatre opened in the heart of Chicago's Polish downtown, the so-called Polonia Triangle where Milwaukee Avenue sliced past Division Street and Ashland Avenue. This was a posher kind of movie theater from the older nickelodeons on Milwaukee Avenue - elegant, comfortable and with ornamentation on a par with what could be enjoyed downtown.

The name of the Chopin Theatre kept changing - to the Harding back to the Chopin to the Pix. By the 1950s, it had succumbed to being the home of the Security Federal Savings and Loan. Then it was a thrift shop. Then a discotheque.

But those were just blips in its history. Unlike such other Milwaukee Avenue establishments as the Enterprise (now a taqueria), the Jefferson Theatre (all that's left is a name in brick) and The Home 5 Cent Theater (now a cool shoe store), the Chopin has survived as a live theater.

Monday night, its owners are throwing the neighborhood a public party to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
What neighborhood are we talking? West Town? Or Wicker Park?

The current owners of the Chopin, Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Headd Dyrkacz, say they prefer to think of their theater as a kind of gateway to Wicker Park. The duo, who now lease out their mainstage on a seasonlong basis to the House Theatre of Chicago but have also produced many shows themselves, made the case in an interview last week that their purchase of the Chopin in 1990 actually paved the way for the cultural growth that made Wicker Park, well, Wicker Park.

"I think we changed the whole neighborhood," Zygmunt Dyrkacz said.

In that spirit, the owners have invited to the party such fellow early WIcker Park players as the Guild Complex (a literary group founded in 1989), the Bop Shop (a cutting-edge, avant-garde jazz club of the 1990s), Chicago Latino Theatre (one of the first Chicago theaters in Wicker Park until it was destroyed by fire) and the Around the Coyote art festival, a famously freewheeling, multivenue festival of art that in many ways established Wicker Park as an artistic community in the 1990s and early aughts.

In an interview Thursday, Around the Coyote co-founder Elizabeth Burke-Dain said that she's recently been cleaning out her basement of all of her Around the Coyote artwork. "It really doesn't seem that long ago," she said, a tad wistfully. For many years, she noted, virtually the entire creative community of Chicago showed up at something at Around the Coyote.

The Bop Shop's Kate Smith had similar memories, speaking by phone of fond memories of the club's singular reputation for cutting-edge music and its support of emerging musicians. "I think we contributed," she said, understating her own influence.

For his part, Dyrkacz, long a colorful, loquacious and outspoken character, has long-standing issues with what he sees as the City of Chicago's privileging of big downtown players at the expense of his own privately curated arts center, along with what he bluntly describes as "the disappearance of Chicago's intellectuals." A 66-year-old Polish immigrant himself, Dyrkacz has for years ensured that the Chopin's lobby and side rooms look like they belong to a theater with roots in Polish culture: You'll find Polish art, tchotchkes and, at the bar, Zywiec, the Polish beer of choice.

"We have always had to fight waves of commercialism," Dyrkacz said, a point of view echoed by Burke-Dain and Smith, both of whom said they found all of the gentrification in the neighborhood tough to stomach.

Plenty of hipsters and condo dwellers find their way to the Chopin these days. In recent years, they've been able to see all manner of entertainments, including a production of "Our Town" in the basement that was directed by David Cromer and went on to become one of the most famous Chicago shows of all times.

But if the Chopin was a pioneer there, it also never has lost its connection to its earliest incarnation as a place where those Chicagoans either born in, or tied to, the nation of Poland could find themselves comforted and entertained.

Twoje zdrowie. Here's to the next 100 years".

Online article
"Chicago's Chopin Theatre Celebrates 100th Anniversary" - Julian Hayda, WBEZ 10/29/18 "Chopin Theatre is a "multidisciplinary arts center in the heart of Wicker Park". The group, celebrating its 100th anniversary, specializes in many art forms, including plays, concerts, art, and even escape room parties. The commemoration concludes this week with a number of events, experiences, and visits from Chopin alumni. To reflect on the Chopin's place in Chicago history, and future plans, are co-owners, Lela Headd Dyrkacz and Zygmunt Dyrkacz. Global citizen, and Weekend Passport co-host, Nari Safavi, will also join us for his thoughts on Chopin's innovative approach to the arts"




Online article

100 Years In Wicker Park: The Chopin Theatre's Revival Brought Elegance To Gritty Polish Triangle - Alisa Hauser 10/24/18

"When Zygmunt Dyrkacz bought the shuttered and boarded up Chopin Theatre in 1990, Wicker Park was a gritty place.  There were "ladies of the evening" on the corners, old tires piled in alleys and many buildings were vacant, Dyrkacz said. A developer wanted to buy an apartment building near the theater and tear it down to build a gas station.

"A gas station for the gateway to Wicker Park?" asked Dyrkacz, who 28 years later visibly shudders at the thought. The gas station never happened. 


Zygmunt and his wife Lela Headd Dyrkacz have energized the Polish Triangle through their Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. The iconic venue presents more than 500 events a year ranging from theater to jazz and classical music, literary events, films and social events.  Built in 1918 as the Chopin Theater, the venue changed names a few times under different owners before becoming a bank in the 1950s. The facade of the building, designed by architects Worthmann & Steinbach, had bullet holes in it when Dyrkacz bought it.


Dyrkacz reopened the theater in 1991 during the Around the Coyote Arts Festival, initially calling it "the Gallery" because he was interested in visual arts. A year later he renamed the theater back to its original name.  Chopin's second show in November 1991, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," was produced and directed by actor John Cusack, just one of hundreds of performers from dozens of theatrical and musical troupes who've called Chopin home over the past three decades.


On Monday, members of the community are invited to celebrate the building's 100th year with the Dyrkaczs. Described on a poster as "a sentimental journey into 1990s Wicker Park," the party runs from 5 p.m.-midnight. It will include roundtable discussions, food, music and a dance party.   Admission is free for artists and technicians that have performed at Chopin Theatre. Tickets for the general public, priced at $30, can be bought online.
‘Being An Entrepreneur Was Not On My Radar'

"It's hard to explain all the dynamics of what we do. We are not just turning over keys and renting out the space. We are very active, and want the space to be well run. It's about how can art make life, which is officially drudgery, more bearable?" Lela Dyrkacz said.  She never thought she'd be in this line of work.


In 2001, Lela Dyrkacz, then Lela Headd, was living in Boystown and working as a brand manager for Kraft Foods, putting in long days with an even longer commute.


"I didn't have much of a social life and thought if I did volunteer work, I would have a richer and more meaningful life," she said. She joined the "saints" and became part of a small army of volunteers who get to see shows at theaters around the city for free as long as they greet patrons and help them to find their seats.


While on on her second saints' assignment at Chopin Theatre, ushering for a show called "Search and Destroy," Headd, then 31, met Dyrkacz, who was 49.  They hit it off and were married within 10 days.


A few years later, Lela Dyrkacz was laid off from Kraft Foods during a merger as she and Zygmunt were expecting their first son. She never went back to corporate America and joined her husband in running the theater.


"Being an entrepreneur was not on my radar. It's an example of trusting your heart and your gut," she said. They've been together for 18 years, raising their two sons, now 14 and 12, in addition to two other sons of Dyrkacz's from his first marriage.  Lela Dyrkacz describes their marriage and running a business together as "an adventure."

"We are both lucky [to have met each other]," she said.   Zygmunt Dyrkacz said, "We have nothing in common.  Beauty and the beast, young and old, black and white, American and Polish."

Both are from working class backgrounds: Lela Dyrkacz grew up partly in Bronzeville's Stateway Gardens after her dad was injured in an accident at work and Dyrkacz was raised in Kalisv, Poland by a single mom.


"It was socialistic Poland, one of the most depressing places you could be," Dyrkacz said.   A trained scientist specializing in insects and biochemistry, Dyrkacz moved to Chicago in 1980, initially living in Hyde Park.


"I was always interested in art and creativity and open mindedness. I didn't want to be in front of a computer, spending a life in a lab didn't appeal to me," Dyrkacz said of his decision to eventually own a theater.


They describe themselves as "resourceful with a good sense of stamina," qualities that have helped them to operate a private for-profit theater that they boast has brought more than 1 million folks to the neighborhood.  "We attribute [theater longevity] to ignorance is bliss. You persevere and you don't know what isn't supposed to be possible," Lela Dyrkacz said.   The theater offers 225 seats on its main floor and an additional 176 seats in the basement.


In a review of the current basement production, "The Walls of Harrow House," Reader critic Dan Jakes said the basement of the Chopin Theatre "has been host to some of the most extraordinary immersive theater experiences in Chicago."  On the main floor, The House Theatre of Chicago's "Borealis" is currently wrapping up its run before the troupe launches its seventh season of "The Nutcracker" next month.


The lobby of Chopin Theatre is packed with antiques and engaging artwork plus a wine and coffee bar open during performances.  "I think it's what makes the space interesting, you come in and are overwhelmed by all these sensory things, the art on the wall, the color palette," Lela Dyrkacz said. Dyrkacz fears that Americans are moving away from traditional theater at at a time when they are distracted and need it most.


"One of the most exciting things for people to do at the theater is to be part of community, to be immersed and inspired. The corporate-muscled Downtown musicals are very different than a small to mid sized theater like ours," Dyrkacz said.


For those who've lived in the area for years but never ventured inside the Chopin Theater, Dyrkacz suggests this coming Monday's party as a good introduction.

"Come here, you will be surprised," he promised"


Online article

Dean Richards' Sunday Morning 10.14.18 | Apple Picking Tips, 100 Years of the Chopin Theater and the Armstrong Brothers - Dean Richards, WBEZ10/14/18 - "This week on Dean Richards' Sunday Morning:
"Elton" Jim Turano rides co-pilot with Dean for a laugh filled Sunday morning.  Dean helps celebrate 100 years of the Chopin Theater in Wicker Park and dives into the theater's storied history in the neighborhood and upcoming celebratory events.  He also shares his interview with the sons of Neil Armstrong who discuss their father's place in American history and his portrayal in the new film "First Man".  In FoodTime, Dean chats with the owner of Apple Holler orchard about the many varieties of apples pickers can enjoy and tips on how to keep your apples fresh"

Online article

How the Chopin Theatre helped revitalize Wicker Park - Justin Kaufman, WBEZ 11/1/18

"Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Dyrkacz join Justin to discuss the history of the Chopin Theatre and the importance of the theater to the Wicker Park community. Zygmunt and Lela talk about the building that houses the Chopin Theatre being 100 years old, what they knew about the building when they bought it in 1990, what they learned about the building since 1990, what it means to be part of the theatrical community in Wicker Park, how the neighborhood has changed over the years, how the theater has adapted to the neighborhood and the 7 hour birthday bash on Monday, October 29th."





Mary Jane Maharry, Brava Public Relations

Celebration Includes Artist Talk, Dance Party and
Conversations with Former/Current Wicker Park Arts Organizational Leaders
Plus Jazz Performance Nov. 5 and Book Release Nov. 24


CHICAGO - Chopin Theatre, the multidisciplinary arts center in the heart of Wicker Park, 1543 W. Division, turns 100 in 2018. To mark the centennial anniversary, owners Lela Headd Dyrkacz and Zygmunt Dyrkacz are hosting a celebration on Oct 29 from 5 p.m. to Midnight, providing a sneak peek of the forthcoming book on Nov. 5 during the "All Souls Jazz Festival" and releasing the book "Around Chopin Theatre: A Century in Pictures & Stories"on Nov. 24. The Oct. 29 celebration is free for past artists associated with Chopin Theatre and general admission tickets are $30. For more information and to RSVP visit

"We are excited to celebrate 100 years of the Chopin Theatre in the neighborhood," said Zygmunt. "We believe in transformative abilities of art and how art influences the environment through civility and experiences. Chopin Theatre is a platform from which others can tell their stories and the Centennial celebration is a time to share the stories of Wicker Park's transformative years."

"We are so proud of being a part of Wicker Park during such an important time in Chicago's history," said Lela. "This 100-year celebration shows the power one building can have in keeping a community feeling like a community. We want to make sure we have that space for people to come together and connect in a real way."


Monday, October 29
The centennial celebration fills the Chopin Theatre with activities from the downstairs Pregnant Buffalo Lounge and studio theater to the upstairs Main Stage. The event, described as an Art & Environment Get Together, includes, a panel discussion with leaders from former prominent Wicker Park arts organizations such as Michael Warr (Guild Complex), Kate Smith (Bop Shop), Edward Torres (Chicago Latino Theatre), Elizabeth Burke-Dain (Around the Coyote) and current owner of Chopin Theatre. Award-winning German artist and architect Daniel Theiler presents his recent work. There is also a complimentary reception, dinner and dance party.

Schedule of Events:

Chopin Studio/Pregnant Buffalo Lounge
5 p.m. - Complimentary reception
6 p.m. - Daniel Theiler, award-winning German architect, will discuss his fictitious luxury golf club in the large socialist housing complex in East Berlin.

6:45-8p.m. - "Made in Wicker Park" - Leaders of Around the Coyote, Bop Shop, Chicago Latino Theater and Guild Complex   come back to Chicago with reflections of their former venues in Wicker Park. What would it take for them to stay in Chicago.

Chopin Theatre Main Stage
7 p.m. - Reception for all the artists, technicians and supporters of Chopin Theatre with visuals from anniversary photo album,"Around Chopin Theatre: A Century in Pictures & Stories"
9 p.m. to midnight - 100th anniversary Champagne Toast and Dance party with Live bands and DJ


Celebration is free for past artists associated with Chopin Theatre. General admission, $30.



Monday November 5th
A sneak peek of the book "Around Chopin Theatre: A Century in Pictures & Stories"
is presented along with the music of those times during the 20th annual "All Souls Jazz Festival" Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $38 and $52 and available at

Saturday November 24th
On Small Business Saturday, Nov. 24, Chopin Theatre will release "Around Chopin Theatre: A Century in Pictures & Stories" commemorating the 100th anniversary of the building of Chopin Theatre and recordings of the most significant events. The book will be 8x10 hardcover with glossy images. The book is $19.95 and will be sold day-of in the theatre and through

According to the Theater Historical Society of America, the theater opened March 11, 1918 and was designed by architects Worthmann & Steinbach. The nickelodeon originally had 546 seats and was operated by Victor Bardonski. In 1923 it was renamed the Harding and the seating capacity was expanded to 987. By 1931 it was called the Chopin again but underwent another name change to the Pix Theater. The building is located across the Polish Triangle in the area once known as Polish Downtown.

In 1955 the building changed to Security Federal Savings & Loan which later moved across the street. When the Dyrkaczs purchased the building in 1990, it was vacant except for the small 200 sq. ft Eddie's Bistro. The Dyrkaczs have restored it to its present charm. Today, across three stages, Chopin Theatre presents over 500 events annually ranging from theater to jazz and classical music, literary events, films and social events.

Since 1990, Chopin Theatre has presented over 120 of its own productions, mostly Eastern and Central European. It has hosted performers from each American state and from over 40 countries. It produced I-Fest, an international festival of solo performances which brought to 17 international artists from Austria, England, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Ukraine to Chicago. It boasts of bringing over 1 million people to Chopin Theatre and Wicker Park.

Famous Chopin Theatre alum include: Literature - Gwendolyn Brooks, Mircea Catarsecu, Jim Derogatis, Stuart Dybek, Michael Erik Dyson, Nikki Giovanni, Aleksandar Hemon, Malalai Joya, Yusef Komunyakaa, Greg Kot, Phillip Levine, Li-Young Lee, Haka Madhubuti, Luis Rodriguez, Sara Paretsky, Charles Simic, Zadie Smith, Studs Terkel, Michael Warr, Bronislaw Wildstein, Adam Zagajewski  and  Actors/Directors - Nathan Allen, David Cromer, John Cusack, Sean Graney, Sean Gunn, Witold Izdebski, Steve James, Krzystof Krauze, Mickle Maher, Anthony Moseley, Steve Pink, Jeremy Piven, Jan Peszek and Patsy Rodenburg; Musicians - Edward Auer, Peter Brotzman, Chuck D., Urszula Dudziak, Kurt Elling, Kahil El Zabar, Nils Frahm, Von Freeman, Fareed Haque, Adam Makowicz, Rob Mazurek, Dominic Miller, Third Coast Percussion, Ken Vandermark, and Paul Wertico; Visual Artists - Tony Fitzpatrick, Richard Horowitz, Tony Karman, Wesley Kimler, Aaron McGruder, Liviu Pasare, Ed Paschke, Art Shay, and Franciszek Starowieyski among many others.


Approximately 2,000 events and thousands of artists and have graced the Chopin Theatre stage since 1990. For complete information visit the archives on


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Biographies "Made in Wicker Park" panel

Elizabeth Burke-Dain - Around the Coyote
Burke-Dain is the co-founder of the Chicago arts event Around the Coyote. She has worked as a marketing and media profession with more than twenty years experience in transforming and elevating cultural brands such as the Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine, Columbia College Chicago, and the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a specialist in institutional branding and creating dynamic visual identities. A proven track record of reinvigorating mission based organizations with innovative programming, media partnerships, social media campaigns and other content that speaks to and engages with new audiences.


Zygmunt Dyrkacz - Chopin Theatre
Dyrkacz came from Poland to the US in 1980 at the invitation of the U.S. Information Agency as an exchange  student in Entomology/Biochemistry. After declaration of Martial Law in Poland he decided to stay in Chicago. In the 1990's he purchased five vacant buildings from demolition court including Chopin Theatre which he continues to work on restoring with his wife Lela. They have produced dozens of international and local shows.


Kate Smith - Bop Shop
Smith opened The Bop Shop Cultural Arts and Entertainment Center at the border of the Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park in October 1989. The Bop Shop while noted for jazz, presented an eclectic offering from rockabilly, hip hop, jazz and swing to open mics and poetry slams. After the Bop Shop closed, Smith produced the documentary film "What it is to be a Woman in Jazz." She currently manages Kate Smith Promotions, continuing her work with emerging Jazz and Latin Jazz musicians.


Edward Torres - Chicago Latino Theatre
Torres co-founded Wicker Park's Chicago Latino Theatre in 1990 along with Henry Godinez. The theater later began Teatro Vista and Torres served as its Artistic Director until 2013. He is an accomplished actor and director whose recent credits include directing the World Premiere of "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" at Victory Gardens, which was named Best Play of 2009 by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Time Out Chicago; was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and earned Joseph Jefferson Awards for Best Production and Best Director. He also directed subsequent productions at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and at Second Stage Theater in New York (Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and Obie Award for Best New American Play).


Michael Warr - Guild Complex
Warr's books include Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (W.W. Norton), and The Armageddon of Funk, We Are All The Black Boy, and Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago's Guild Complex all from Tia Chucha Press. In 2017 he was named a San Francisco Library Laureate. Other poetry honors include a Creative Work Fund award for his multimedia project Tracing Poetic Memory in Bayview Hunters Point, PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature, Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award, Gwendolyn Brooks Significant Illinois Poets Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry. Warr is the former Deputy Director of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and has extensive experience in community-based arts. He is a board member of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library and Principal at WarrConsulting. In Chicago, he served as the founding Executive Director of the Guild Literary Complex from 1989-1999. Follow his life as an artist at


Biography on visiting guest artist Daniel Theiler
Daniel Theiler, born 1981 in Bonn (Germany), is an architect and artist who lives and works in Berlin and Leipzig. He studied architecture at Berlin Technical University, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, and at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He is currently enrolled in the international postgraduate Masters program "Public Art and New Artistic Strategies" at the Bauhaus University Weimar, during which he spends a semester at Chicago's SAIC. Daniel Theiler‘s works span installation, performance, video, and photography. They examine the gaps between social utopias and societal realities; they challenge conventions and question the usual in a cheerful and often humorous ways. His works have been exhibited at large German art festivals held by the State Theatres of Nuremberg and Weimar, by the Maxim Gorki Theatre Berlin, and at several biennial arts festivals in cities throughout Germany.


Lela Headd Dyrkacz- Chopin Theatre
Headd Dyrkacz went from public housing to the nice offices of Kraft Foods International using her MBA only to join the maintenance crew of Chopin Theatre under the direction of fearless leader and husband, Zygmunt. Her hobbies include translation for Zygmunt and being the Diplomat in Chief for Chopin Theatre.